May 22, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
Back in the day when video stores existed and I used to patronize them regularly, I depended particularly upon the judgment of a cinephile clerk named Will. One day, I went into his Brooklyn store and found someone different behind the counter.
I explained to him what I was looking for: A creepy psychological thriller/horror movie along the lines of Don’t Look Now, The Innocents, the original Wicker Man, Haunting of Hill House, Burnt Offerings, or Audrey Rose. (I added that, despite its mediocrity, there were things I liked about Skeleton Key.) In short, I tend to like a not-too-silly movie dealing with ghosts and the occult. I am especially drawn to those set in the 1970s, in which everyone is seemingly punished for the naivete of belonging to a happy family (just as a decade later one would be punished for being a teen girl). Catholic clergy is a plus. Hammer horror, serial killers, vampires, zombies, malevolent animals, and monsters of other kinds need not apply.
We discussed this earnestly for some time and he determined that I must rent the 1981 version of The Black Cat, loosely based on the eponymous Poe story. As he seemed to understand exactly what I was looking for, I was very excited and set aside a whole evening for viewing.
Well, The Black Cat was idiotic. Campy, goofy, and full of fake blood. I hope I’m not spoiling anything for anyone when I tell you it’s about an evil cat (black) who mauls people.
It is a funny thing—or maybe it’s not—but every time someone close to me has died, I have had an overpowering desire to watch ghost movies, read chilling stories, and, like a post-WWI Spiritualist, immerse myself in the uncanny. (Maybe it’s the result of growing up without religion, and with movies and books.)
Bereaved or otherwise, if your tastes run to the Gothic, I highly recommend Haunted Houses, a collection of first-person accounts edited and illustrated by the photographer Corinne May Botz. There are a number of spine-tinglers, and the combination of subtly evocative visuals and frank narration is eerie and engaging.
But there was one part that stood out especially for me, and not just because it concerns St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, near where I grew up (and site of an excellent annual rummage sale). The former minister testifies to the many instances of hauntings in the church, then says,
I don’t know how you scientifically deal with that. I’m sure there are ways of saying that it was a bad dream or a projection, but it happens and it’s not surprising believing in the communion of saints as I do. I think, “Yeah so? What’s so surprising about it?” There’s a fine line between the next world and this. It’s all one reality and we can’t divide it up, reality is reality. We know a little bit from Einstein about time, relativity and space, and that one interacts with the other. Time is a human construct anyway… who says there’s a great division about past, present and future? Who says we can’t visit those places in the so-called past? Now is all we have.
There is certainly plenty to argue with here, if one is so inclined. And as he implies, a certain degree of suspension—or faith—is required. But however much of a rationalist or skeptic one might be, it’s an interesting idea: that things are not uncanny unless they are breaking rules—and those rules themselves are sometimes constructs.
I forgot to return The Black Cat, and then the video store closed, permanently, shortly thereafter. The result is that I still own the DVD, which I just ran across in a box of old stuff at the back of my closet. Obviously, I watched it immediately. And something about it was very comforting; maybe I have come to enjoy suspending disbelief.